PHILADELPHIA -- General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last week that the Phillies could still find a way to improve their offense for 2014.
But pitching remains a priority, and it is easy to see why. Phillies starters posted a 4.41 ERA last season, ranked 14th in the National League, and their relievers posted a 4.13 ERA, also 14th.
Tyler Cloyd, Zach Miner and Ethan Martin, who showed serious upside as a reliever, started four of the final six games of the season, which might explain why manager Ryne Sandberg said that starting pitching should be an offseason priority. Although that is difficult to debate, the Phillies also need to stabilize their leaky bullpen.
One top target vanished recently when the Angels signed right-hander Joe Smith to a three-year, $15.75 million deal. The wisdom in investing so many years and so much money into a reliever, even one with a track record like Smith's, is debatable. The performance of relief pitchers is highly volatile, and the Phillies know that better than anybody. Since they signed relievers Chan Ho Park and Jose Contreras to one-year contracts before the 2009 and 2010 seasons, respectively, free-agent relievers Danys Baez, Chad Qualls, Chad Durbin and Mike Adams haven't worked out. The two-year extension the Phillies handed Contreras before the 2011 season didn't work out, either.
Jonathan Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million contract in November 2011, but his velocity has dipped in each of the previous two seasons, and he struck out only 8.3 batters per nine innings last season, the lowest mark of his career.
So who are some possibilities? The Tigers reportedly are close to signing Brian Wilson, so he is out. The Royals reportedly could trade right-hander Aaron Crow or left-hander Tim Collins. Both have been effective, and both would come relatively inexpensively because they are entering their first years of salary arbitration.
Edward Mujica's name comes up a lot. From 2010-13, his 1.00 WHIP ranked 11th out of 252 relievers who faced at least 370 batters. He started last season as the Cardinals' setup man before becoming their closer and saving 37 games, but then he vanished. He lost the closer's job because of shoulder issues and general ineffectiveness and barely pitched in the postseason.
Rays right-hander Jesse Crain missed the second half of the season because of a shoulder injury, but when he is healthy, he is very good. He might make sense at the right price (i.e., low base salary with incentives). And one wonders if the Phillies would take a flier on right-hander Ryan Madson, who has not thrown a pitch in the big leagues since he last pitched in Philadelphia in 2011.
Joel Hanrahan also fits into that low-risk-high-reward category. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in May but is reportedly beginning his throwing program.
There are plenty of closers on the market, but the Phillies owe Papelbon $26 million for the next two seasons, plus a potential $13 million more based on a vesting option (guaranteed with 55 games finished in 2015 or 100 games finished in 2014-15).
Low-risk or smaller commitments seem to make more sense anyway. The Phillies liked what they saw late in the season from right-handers Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg and left-hander Jake Diekman, but they felt similarly entering last offseason based on strong second-half performances by right-hander Phillippe Aumont and left-handers Jeremy Horst and Raul Valdes. For various reasons those three never matched their 2012 success.
That is why bringing in an arm or two would make sense. Papelbon, Adams and left-hander Antonio Bastardo appear to be the only locks at this point, with De Fratus, Rosenberg and Diekman frontrunners among a pack that also includes Martin, Michael Stutes, Aumont, Horst, Luis Garcia and Joe Savery. Of course, it must be noted that Adams is going to try to come back from surgery on his right shoulder, and Bastardo must prove that he can be effective following a 50-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance. They are hardly sure things.
But then relievers rarely are.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.